Wednesday, September 9, 2015

book review: Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

The backstory: Satin Island is on the 2015 Booker Prize longlist.

The basics: I'll let the publisher describe this one for you: "U., a “corporate anthropologist,” is tasked with writing the Great Report, an all-encompassing ethnographic document that would sum up our era. Yet at every turn, he feels himself overwhelmed by the ubiquity of data, lost in buffer zones, wandering through crowds of apparitions, willing them to coalesce into symbols that can be translated into some kind of account that makes sense. As he begins to wonder if the Great Report might remain a shapeless, oozing plasma, his senses are startled awake by a dream of an apocalyptic cityscape."

My thoughts: The cover of this novel is awesome. Many things are crossed out: a treatise, an essay, a report, a confession, and a manifesto. What remains: a novel. Maybe. It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone paying attention that McCarthy has written a compelling, unconventional and demanding novel. Phil Hogan's review in The Guardian sums up the novel beautifully:
"At 176 pages, Satin Island isn’t as short as it looks. There’s barely a page where you don’t find yourself coming up for air – yes, sometimes to admire McCarthy’s swashbuckling prose or to digest some startling cerebral insight, but often just to wonder what he’s talking about."
As a reader, I not only found the novel disjointed, but I found the reading experience disjointed. I would read in moments short and long, and I would sometimes find myself re-reading and re-reading and re-reading and wondering what if anything was actually going to happen. Satin Island is a slim novel, but it's also a boring novel. For a novel of ideas, it needed more of them. There are some great ones, but unlike with C, the only other McCarthy novel I've read, the seemingly disparate parts never came together for me here. In some ways it was like I was like I was having a conversation with U himself, and while a few things he said stuck with me, I left feeling as though I don't quite understand him.

The idea of this novel still enchants me: an all-encompassing ethnographic document that would sum up our era? Sign me up! But even as I read that description, I wouldn't match it to this novel. Instead, I'd say U is talking about trying to write such a document rather than actually writing it. It's this very disconnect that is the novel's weakness to me. McCarthy picks an anti-structure as his structure, but it isn't really the product of its prompt.

Favorite passage: "But this didn't trouble the believers. Things like that never do. People need foundation myths, some imprint of year zero, a bolt that secures the scaffolding that in turn holds fast the entire architecture of reality, of time: memory-chambers and oblivion-cellars, walls between eras, hallways that sweep us on towards the end-days and the coming whatever-it-is."

The verdict: To me, it's a given McCarthy is brilliant and a brilliant writer, and there are certainly flashes of brilliance in this novel. But the idea of it is so much more interesting than its execution. For all of the fascinating moments and ideas, there were a lot of dull ones that never developed into something more for me. Recommended for literary fiction fans who enjoy experimental novels.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 208 pages
Publication date: February 17, 2015
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Satin Island from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Two very different reviews: Phil Hogan for The Guardian and Jeff Turrentine for The New York Times. My response is almost identical to Hogan's, which makes me happy because I adored his most recent novel, A Pleasure and a Calling. I appreciate Turrentine's review for its insight into a completely different response to the novel.

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  1. This has been by far the most reviewed Booker (at least in my feed). Is it because the author is the most famous among the finalists? Are they giving away review copies? Or maybe it's the most likely to win?

    1. Ooh! I'll have to look for other reviews. I've been staying away while I form my own opinions:-). I often start with the shortest book on a prize list so I feel like I'm making progress quickly--maybe that method is growing in popularity!


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